The (In)Human Condition: Animality in Simon Stephens’s Three Kingdoms

Vicky Angelaki

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Simon Stephens’s play Three Kingdoms has been one of the most widely talked about theatre texts of the recent period, in which the controversy it has stirred is arguably only comparable to the equally formally experimental, carefully constructed and masterfully executed play The Author by Tim Crouch (2009). What the two plays have in common is a seemingly open and flexible form and a highly sensitive issue at the heart of their plots. In Crouch’s play this is the almost imperceptible boundary between art and life, the artist’s responsibility and their potential implication in propagating violence and abuse. In Stephens’s play, some of these questions persist. Here, too, we are dealing with the question of how much responsibility the playwright carries when it comes to their position against major social issues; with the concern of how this responsibility might begin to be articulated in a contemporary play; with the dilemma of how theatre might begin to explore crimes of violence and sexual exploitation in a way that might genuinely impact spectators, who might consider themselves as very far removed from the problem.
Three Kingdoms is a play about abuse against vulnerable individuals who are marketed as though they were inanimate commodities and who fall prey to the desires of others, whether for profit, or for sexual consumption, or both. As I will discuss in this essay, in order to demonstrate this process of ruthless objectification and commodification Stephens arrives at a model that deviates from the social realist norm, combining expressionism and metaphor: far from depicting the exploited and marketed individuals that are the victims of sexual trade as decorporealised and disinvested, quite on the contrary, he amplifies the impact of their physicality by providing theatrical storytelling that is reliant on the body as much as on text. He also, as this essay will explore in detail, renders this physicality visible for spectators in a way that does not present it merely as human, or at least not in a straightforward or one-dimensional way. That is, Stephens returns the human to its primal form, that of a creature, indeed an animal. This depiction then goes on to act as an apt vehicle and metaphor for making statements as to the urges, instincts, aggression but also victimisation that humans may sustain.
Original languageEnglish
JournalSillages Critiques
Publication statusPublished - 2016


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